My efforts to locate the very first Christian church built in Lahore finally bore fruit. My hunch, backed by local gossip, had pinpointed the location, but it took a rare 1595 letter to the Portuguese Viceroy at Goa to nail the matter.
The first Christian missionaries were from the Jesuit Mission in Goa. Before coming to Lahore, they first reached the court of Mughal emperor Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri. It was led by Antonio Cabral, on the orders of the Portuguese Viceroy to Goa in 1576. Once the mission left to report to the Jesuit mission at Goa, Akbar immediately sent a letter desiring to meet Father Julianes Pereira, the Bishop of Cochin and Vicar-General of Satgaon. Father Pereira, who knew the Quran by heart, reminded Akbar that in Surah Mariam, the truth about Jesus is stated clearly.
This meeting at Fatehpur Sikri got the emperor even most interested in Christianity. The encounter with the Jesuits made Akbar send a delegation to Goa in September 1579, with letters to the Viceroy, Don Lewis d’Athaide, as well as the Portuguese Archbishop. He opened up by stating that he was positively disposed towards their faith, requesting that a number of Fathers be sent to acquaint him about their faith.
The return Jesuit delegation consisted of Fathers Anthony Monserrate, Rudolf Acquaviva and Francis Henrique, a Persian speaking Armenian Muslim convert, reaching Fatehpur Sikri on 28th of February 1580. The palaces, mosques and gardens impressed the Portuguese and they wrote back about “a most enchanting city the likes unknown in Europe.”
At the palace Akbar questioned them at length. He was presented with a new Royal Polygot Bible of Plantyn, which was placed in a gold casket in his private room. The account states: “The courtiers spent the first day questioning the authenticity of the Bible, followed by sessions about Paradise. For four days the debate continued, and when a comparison between Muhammad (PBUH) and Jesus (AS) was drawn, a negative comment about the Muslim prophet sent Akbar into a rage.
The Jesuits complained that when the mullahs condemned Jesus, which was a sin onto itself, he did not mind. On this the emperor cooled down and asked for the debate to continue. He organised a dialogue between a Brahmin, a Muslim scholar, a Parsi, a Jew, the Jesuits and a philosopher. The delegation returned to Goa in February 1583, and Akbar issued a ‘farman’ stating that the Christian faith is ‘a manifestation of divine secrets.’
Eight years after the Fatehpur Sikri mission, there was a long silence on the part of Akbar, who by then had moved to Lahore. Then suddenly a letter was received by the Society of Jesus at Goa in 1590, inviting them to Lahore. This was the beginning of three more missions that were to come to Lahore, They stayed at a royal house located just off Tehsil Bazaar.
So the first mission to Lahore comprised Father Leioton (or Leighton) and Father Christopher de Vega, accompanied by an unknown person. The brief from Lisbon to Goa was to “concentrate on converting the emperor”. Akbar put both the Fathers to teach his sons Portuguese. They reached the conclusion that Akbar was never going to convert, and left for Goa.
The second mission to Akbar’s Lahore was on the orders of the Portuguese government in 1594 on Akbar’s request. The powerful team selected was the famous Padre Jerome Xavier, a nephew of St Francis. With him came Brother Emmanuel Pinheiro and Brother Benedict Goes, as well as the Armenian convert guide. They reached Lahore on the 5th of May, 1595.
On the 28th of August, 1595, an angry Akbar called them to court and ordered them to build a church in Lahore. According to a letter from Father Pinheiro dated September 3, 1595, to Padre Joannem Alverez, his order was to “build a church and convert as many people as they could.” The Jesuits were shocked. The emperor contributed Rs4,000 towards the building of the church and a house. That church, made of wood with numerous balconies and decorated with pictures held its first service on 7th of September, 1597.
The building of the church, however, gave rise to a lot of resentment, for everywhere they went Hindus and Muslims called them ‘kafirs’. In those days a plague hit Lahore and famine followed, which many blamed on them. With the emperor leaving Lahore at the end of 1598, he took along Xavier and Benedict Goes.
At Lahore Pinheiro was left in charge of the church and the Lahore Mission. One account states that they had managed to convert 38 persons, mostly Hindus. These conversions and its rumours built up a hostile environment. The death of the governor saw Lahore with a new governor named ‘Kulij Khan’ who started forcing the converted to reconvert. The Jesuits approached Akbar, who issued a ‘farman’ stopping such reconversions. Tension was rife in the city and inside the Lahore Fort a Portuguese official was beaten up and forced to recite the ‘kalma’.
Then a property issue of the houses granted by Akbar arose. The houses actually belonged to Pannu Ram, a Hindu, who had it confiscated in a tax default. The Hindus collected Rs2,000 and repaid the default amount. The governor ordered a vacation of property. Xavier approached the emperor, who immediately ordered it returned, making his own son the guarantor.
The Hindus revved up their efforts by presenting the governor Rs9,000 and nine horses. The ‘kotwal’ of Lahore informed Pinheiro of an effort to take over the church. Soon a ‘farman’ reached the governor to provide the priests another Rs1,000. They received Rs333 only.
On the 15th of October 1605, Emperor Akbar died. The new emperor Jahangir immediately faced a revolt by his son Khusrau, who was captured after his boat sank in the Chenab. From Lahore two Jesuit Fathers were ordered to accompany him to Agra. Jahangir immediately set in motion a new law restoring property rights to former owners. This meant that the houses provided to the Jesuits were to be reclaimed.
However, Jahangir decided that they would keep possession of the church land only. The two-storied church was one of the finest in old Lahore and Jahangir provided them Rs80 a month for its upkeep. In 1607 Jahangir on his way from Kabul came to Lahore and took Father Pinheiro with him to Goa. Here we see the very first economic clash between English and Portuguese traders. The emperor cancelled the English concessions and provided the Portuguese an open field. In 1614 the Jesuits purchased ’12 bighas’ of land at Mozang for Lahore’s first Christian graveyard. Suddenly the tide turned.
Emperor Jahangir ordered in 1614 that the church be shut and the Fathers expelled from the college. For a good 12 years matters in Lahore were stationary when suddenly the emperor relented. The cemetery was returned and a degree of amity returned. But a second shock awaited when Jahangir died and emperor Shah Jehan closed the church, banned conversion, encouraged reconversion and stopped the monthly pension and alms money. Then one day his men came and knocked down Lahore’s beautiful church, setting it afire.
To top it he invaded the Portuguese settlement in Hugli and made the Portuguese prisoners. The Jesuit priests of Lahore died in Agra in confinement. Their graves exist in Agra still. In 1641 the Jesuits under Father Sebastian Manrique returned to try to sell the houses acquired. In 1646 a priest by the name of Father Joseph de Castro died in Lahore. In 1648 the Mission returned with royal consent to dig up his grave for reburial in Agra. A letter by the Mission states that: “they were shocked to find the body of Father Joseph fresh and intact, even his clothes seems fresh as were his hair and eyes”. The grave can still be seen in Agra’s Christian graveyard.
In 1651 came Father Buzeo to head the Lahore Mission, but was imprisoned by the emperor, for being ‘a spy of the King of Portugal’. Prince Dara secured his release. Amazingly Emperor Aurangzeb never bothered the Jesuits. In 1752 the Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali took all Christian soldiers to Kabul as slaves to be sold. The Jesuit Mission ceased to exist.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020